The Ahok effect: a new era for Indonesia?

Ahok lost the Jarkata elections. But has Indonesia lost a skilful politician and governor?

 By Tan Zhi Xin

Ahok mania is real. More than a thousand people flocked to the City Hall in Jakarta to pay tribute to him the day after the end of his blasphemy trial. This turned the complex into a tourist spot as people waited patiently in line to meet and take pictures with Ahok. Some people even travelled from other provinces just to meet the governor, such as Debora Sarwom who came from Jayapura, Papua, and Hermina Samosir who travelled from Medan, North Sumatra. Others sent massive flower stands to express their gratitude and support for the outgoing governor.

The governor has only a few months left in office following his defeat in the gubernatorial election. Official results have yet to be released, but quick counts by ten research companies showed the contender, Anies Baswedan winning 58% of the votes in the head-to-head vote. However, this will not be the end of Ahoks’ political career. In fact, chances are he might soar even higher – but only if he manages to regain his loss of support from voters across all economic classes.

Ahok was the best governor of Jakarta

Ahok was the strong and firm leader Jakarta needed. He tackled corruption and pushed for health care, benefits for the poor people, ensured the construction of Jakarta’s first metro system stayed on schedule, and addressed Jakarta’s systemic problem of flooding and heavy traffic.

As part of his efforts to clean up corruption, Ahok introduced computerised systems to improve data transparency. These include a licencing system for street vendors, a smart card for students, and a system that allows direct rent payment to state-owned Bank DKI. These initiatives reduce opportunities for corruption because the money now goes directly to the receiver without having to go through a third party.

He also introduced a number of regulations to strengthen law and order in the capital. A twist to the panopticon, a website was set up where members of the public could post photos of people breaking the law. These forces citizens to behave appropriately and abide by the laws.

 During Ahoks tenure, in 2016, the Jakarta city administration received awards for best development planning, most innovative development planning, the highest achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and having the MDGs best achievement indicators from 2013 to 2015. And this year, Jakarta clinched first place in the category of Province with the Best Innovation in Planning and second place in the category of The Best Province in Planning.

It was not just religion hatred or racial identity that resulted in Ahok’s defeat

It would be a lie to say that religion did not matter. Ahok had great potential until he was charged with blasphemy. , His popularity plunged once that allegation was made. In February 2017, 57% of the residents in Jakarta believed that he was guilty. His opponent, Anies Basweda capitalised on the backlash against Ahok by courting the support of the conservatives who opposed electing a non-Muslim leader.

Instead of a straightforward election where the governor was to be elected on the basis of capability, policies and track records, it became an ideological battleground between Islamic piety and pluralism. On the eve of the election, Anies compared the gubernatorial election to the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, which was considered a turning point in Prophet Muhammad’s struggle to establish Islam and defeat his pagan opponents.

The Jakarta governor was also targeted for his identity as an ethnic Chinese. During the election period, hate-speech and fake news surged to an alarming level. This use of race and religion in an electoral campaign was described by an editorial in the Jakarta Post as being the “dirtiest, most polarising, and most divisive the nation has ever seen.”

If Ahok symbolises pluralism in Indonesia, then does a vote for Ahok automatically translate into a vote for religious conservatism? The answer is no. Ahok’s defeat is more of an indicator of the population’s desire for an effective and approachable government than support for conservatives.

Ahok’s inability to relate to the dominant class is as important a reason for his defeat as his ethnic and religious background. Ahok could not empathise with the lower and middle-lower class which made up 76% of the population in Jakarta. In other words, he is elitist and shares the same social language with the well-to-do upper-middle class, which is only 18% of the residents in the capital city.

During his tenure, Ahok created policies that appealed mainly to the middle and upper-middle urban residents. His neoliberal urban redevelopment and infrastructural improvement programme were pitched at the middle and upper-middleclass. At the same time, his proposal to evict informal neighbourhoods resulted in grievances and a sense of betrayal amongst the lower classes that saw themselves as a sacrifice for the greater good. In other words, his ambitious redevelopment project alienated the poor and eventually drove them to oppose Ahok.

Ahok also made the grave mistake of vote buying in a bid to secure votes during the cooling period. This tainted Ahok’s image as a clean politician and disappointed the middle and upper-middle class. As a result, many of his staunch supporters turned their back on him at the last minute.

Finally, what really put the nail in the coffin was Ahok’s feisty personality. His Sumantran style and tough talk could appear charismatic, but many perceived him as being arrogant and rude. In a country where politeness and etiquette are paramount, it is unsurprising that Ahok failed to gain popular vote.

Is it Joko Widodo’s turn to leave?

A researcher at the Jakarta think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Philips Vermonte said “This result will give a boost to Prabowo and the opposition to challenge Widodo’s authority.” But does the defeat of Ahok necessarily translate into a foreseeable fall from power for Widodo?

The Jakarta election is widely seen as having a significant bearing on the 2019 presidential election. For now, Ahok’s loss is a blow for the president. Jokowi would be far stronger if he had his ally Ahok as the governor of Jakarta. Now that Ahok is defeated, it leads us to wonder how the Jokowi-Anies relationship might play out.

Ahok is a useful friend to have. But it is far-fetched to say, at this moment, that the result of the Jakarta election will badly damage Jokowi’s chance of re-election in 2019. Jokowi represents a new era of politicians in Indonesia. He does not hail from the country’s narrow military and political elites. He worked his way up from the bottom and is known for his pragmatism and clean governance. This is why people elected him. As such, it is unlikely that Ahok’s loss will do huge damage.

Taking a step back, the bigger picture is far less gloomy. Anies’s victory gives rise to the fear that the centuries-old moderate Muslim tradition is slowly crumbling in the face of rising Islamic fundamentalism. But there should not be such fear. Anies is a moderate Muslim to begin with. While he was willing to engage the conservatives during the election, he will not feed their appetite for Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, Indonesia, guided by the national motto of Unity in Diversity, is likely to remain plural. Most symbolically, Jokowi has recently called for the separation of religion and politics.

As for the outgoing Jakarta governor, rumour has it that he might be appointed a ministerial-level post in Jokowi’s cabinet. Although Jokowi denies the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle in the near future, he remains non-committal when asked about the rumour. Regardless, this loss is not the final episode of Ahok’s political life. After all, he did not enter politics for fame or popularity. His achievements during his tenure as the Jakarta governor prove it all.